New female mayor gears Bethlehem up for Christmas

By Lauren E. Bohn

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 21 2012 12:34 p.m. MST

She is also looking for a return of international aid to the town after Hamas dropped out of the municipal council. The Islamist group won nearly half the seats on the council in 2006 — the last time municipal elections were held. That sparked a halt in aid programs by the European Union, United States and others because they consider the group a terror organization. However, Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, boycotted October's municipal elections, and now the council is held by leftists, independents and the moderate Fatah faction.

Baboun says her status as the town's first woman mayor can be a draw. "That people voted for me, even many men, is a sign Palestinians want change," she said.

"I think she is a remarkable woman and a remarkable person," said Nabil Shaath, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "I'm sure she will excel."

Many residents remain skeptical.

Ayesh Salahat, a young Palestinian, appeared unimpressed by the Christmas decorations of Manger Square and the elaborate fireworks that coincided with last week's lighting of the tree. Even as he watched dozens of tourists from all over the world taking pictures in the square, he said he doubted things would get better.

"I don't think we'll see any improvement in unemployment or services in Bethlehem," he said. "I'm not hopeful life will ever change here."

Outside the town's quaint Manger Square, Bethlehem is a drab, sprawling town with a dwindling Christian base.

Overall, there are only about 50,000 Christians in the West Bank, less than 3 percent of the population, the result of a lower birthrate and increased emigration. Bethlehem's Christians make up only a third of the town's residents, down from 75 percent a few decades ago.

Located on the southeastern outskirts of Jerusalem, Bethlehem is surrounded on three sides by a barrier Israel built to stop Palestinian militants after a wave of suicide bomb attacks in the last decade. Palestinians say the barrier has damaged their economy by restricting movement in and out of town.

"Our city is literally surrounded by settlements and walls," she said, pointing to the nearby barrier, where locals have painted a Christmas tree enclosed by gates. "It harms our growth, there's no exchange of people, ideas, goods."

Despite the hardships, Baboun said she is hopeful ahead of the holiday season, in large part due to the successful U.N. bid.

"This Christmas will be one of thanks, a message of peace for our statehood," she said, "but also a reminder that our fight is not over."

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